Power ranking the head coaches in the Sweet 16
After a wild first weekend, the Sweet 16 is upon us.
Traditionally, this is where the tournament calms down from the madness of the first 4 days, but with a 15 seed, 9 seed, 8 seed, and a blue-blood masquerading as a 7 seed all playing in region semifinals beginning Thursday night, the usual return to normalcy may be delayed.
The first weekend didn’t lack surprises, but that doesn’t mean the regions lack proven commodities. Blue-bloods Michigan State, UCLA and UConn have found their way to another Sweet 16. There’s proven star power too, with Houston’s Marcus Sasser, Alabama’s Brandon Miller, Kansas State’s Keyontae Johnson and UCLA’s Jamie Jaquez Jr. among the All-Americans who will take to the floor in the Sweet 16.
There’s coaching star power too, including national championship winner Tom Izzo, who will coach on the second weekend for the 15th time. Izzo is the headliner, but from rising young stars like FAU’s Dusty May to seasoned winners like Gonzaga’s Mark Few, a great group of coaches will take teams to the second weekend of March Madness. Plus, with Baylor’s elimination on Sunday night, only Izzo remains among national championship winning coaches. Odds are, then, that a new head coach joins the national championship winning fraternity, which has grown smaller over the past few years with the retirements of legends like Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim.
Here’s a power ranking of every coach in the Sweet 16.
16. Rodney Terry, Texas
Terry has done a sensational job leading this Horns team through the minefield of Chris Beard’s arrest and subsequent firing midseason. To win the Big 12 Tournament and reach the second weekend, with a 2 seed no less, is marvelous. That said, Texas lifting the interim label at season’s end is a risk. Terry is just over .500 as a head coach in his career, and the sample size isn’t small: 10 seasons, including his 21-7 mark this season, 6 seasons at Fresno State and a year at UTEP. This is just his 2nd appearance as a head coach in the NCAA Tournament. Texas is one of the best teams still playing. Terry, however, ranks at the bottom of the coaches still working.
15. Mitch Henderson, Princeton
The toast of the tournament, Henderson’s masterpiece against 2 seed Arizona showed off his coaching chops.
The longtime disciple of Bill Carmody at Northwestern and coaching legend Pete Carril, who he played for as a captain during his own time at Princeton, Henderson is a savvy Xs and Os coach who runs terrific, patient offense and has won 3 Ivy League championships. His Ivy League run of excellence has come during the halcyon days for the league as a whole, with multiple programs nationally competitive. This season marked Henderson’s 2nd NCAA Tournament appearance at Princeton, and his dissection of Missouri and Dennis Gates in the second round was a sight to see. Princeton is a fundamentally sound team that doesn’t beat itself. That’s great coaching.
14. Jerome Tang, Kansas State
The lone first-time, first-year head coach on the list, Tang and the Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Big 12 before the season. They’ve bucked every expectation and on Sunday, they bounced one of the tournament’s most talented teams in Kentucky, overwhelming the Wildcats in the second half with swarming defense and clutch shot-making.
KEYONTAE JOHNSON. CLUTCH ‼️#MarchMadness @KStateMBB pic.twitter.com/sNOXsW8vOL
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 19, 2023
In transfer Keyontae Johnson, the Wildcats have an All-American and one of the nation’s greatest comeback stories, and in Markquis Nowell, they have a true star. Tang has them believing, and having coached deep into the NCAA Tournament for many years under his mentor, Scott Drew, Tang understands how to win in March. This is just the beginning for him in Manhattan.
13. Dusty May, Florida Atlantic
May is a rising star and his stay toward the bottom of this list will be short lived. At 46, he’s already the winningest head coach in Florida Atlantic history, with 99 wins and a .625 win percentage. He was also an associate head coach for Mike White during White’s Florida years, when the Gators made the Elite 8 once and qualified for 5 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. The Conference-USA champions, the Owls spent most the season in the top 30 in KenPom and the top 25 in the NET, and they shouldn’t be counted out against Tennessee in the Sweet 16.
12. Danny Hurley, Connecticut
Hurley, the son of a prep coaching legend, has spent a decade finding his way as a head coach. Always high energy and high volume, he’s become a reflexive thinker too, changing his offense 3 seasons ago to the less isolation, more ball screen heavy version that now has finished in the top 30 of college basketball the past 3 seasons, per KenPom. He’s also kept the passion, but mellowed the hothead outbursts that saw him lead the Atlantic 10 in technical fouls in 3 of his 6 seasons at Rhode Island.
Is Dan Hurley coaching or delivering a Shakespeare monologue? pic.twitter.com/JpefawEGZZ
— Tyler Aki (@TylerAki_) January 7, 2023
The result? A coach who won just 58% of his games when he was hired at UConn has found himself, winning 65% of his games in Storrs and restoring the Huskies to national relevance. Will a Final Four follow? That would be the next, natural step.
11. Brian Dutcher, San Diego State
Dutcher is a fascinating case study in what happens when you spend most your career in a 1- to 3-bid league. The Aztecs have been marvelous under his watch, qualifying for 4 NCAA Tournaments. That number would be 5 but for the pandemic, which wiped away a 30-2 season where Dutcher’s club was almost certainly set to be a 1 seed. But for all the success, Dutcher’s Aztecs had not won a NCAA Tournament game until Thursday, when they held off upset-minded Charleston. San Diego State’s win over Furman was as impressive as any performance on the first weekend, and the Aztecs, a physical team that plays marvelous defense, should test Alabama. Win that game, and Dutcher will find himself higher on this type of list in the future.
10. Greg McDermott, Creighton
The Bluejays head man has seen the program ascend to the national stage in his decade in Omaha. When he took the job, in 2010, Creighton was plying its trade in the Missouri Valley Conference, at the mercy of the Selection Committee if it dared lose the conference tournament. Now, the Bluejays are perennial Big East championship contenders and one of the nation’s most consistent programs. McDermott has been at the center of all of that, and now, coaching in his second Sweet 16 after dispatching Baylor, he has his most talented team yet, one capable of winning a regional and advancing to Creighton’s first Final Four.
9. Rick Barnes, Tennessee
The 68-year-old Barnes is in the middle of the best coaching job of his career, willing a Tennessee team that is not close to his most talented to the Sweet 16. A historic underachiever in March, Barnes may be overcoming that with arguably his least talented team of all his tournament squads at Tennessee. This version of Tennessee has just 1 surefire NBA player, Santiago Vescovi. But they are a hardscrabble group that knows their core DNA: bare-knuckle defense, tenacious rebounding, and a physicality that wears on teams in the second half. Credit Barnes for leaning into that, and perhaps seeing a bit of a disrespected underdog that reminds him of himself when he watches the Vols play.
8. Sean Miller, Xavier
Miller, in his second go-round at Xavier, was fired at Arizona, but that was largely due to NCAA violations that cost Miller 32 wins and Arizona fans a great deal of agony in the latter part of the prior decade. Miller didn’t come out of the NCAA scandal unharmed, and he needed a year off to prove he learned his lesson and had remorse. Back in Cincinnati, however, he has the Musketeers playing on the second weekend in his first season. Miller is a brilliant offensive coach, and his best Arizona teams could really defend, too. This Xavier team mostly has to outscore people, but that wasn’t a problem on the first weekend, and may not be against Texas, either. This will be Miler’s 8th trip to the Sweet 16, despite only coaching 18 overall seasons as a head coach, a testament to his talents.
7. Nate Oats, Alabama
Oats, a former math teacher and high school basketball coach, has made a meteoric rise up the coaching ranks since leaving prep hoops to become an assistant at Buffalo in 2013. He led the Bulls to 3 NCAA Tournaments in 4 seasons, advancing to the Round of 32 twice, and then went about awakening slumbering Alabama, a former SEC power under Wimp Sanderson that had fallen on harder times this century.
The Crimson Tide struggled in Oats’ first season, finishing around .500, but they’ve won 2 SEC Championships since and this season became the No. 1 overall seed in the field for the first time in school history. Oats has not handled the tragic off the court issues surrounding Brandon Miller and 3 other Alabama basketball players very well. But on the court, he’s an innovative basketball mind whose analytics-driven, up-tempo offense is tough to slow down and whose Crimson Tide team defends better than any Alabama team in recent memory. The Crimson Tide might be the prohibitive NCAA favorites, and Oats’ program-building and in-game coaching is a huge reason for that.
6. Mick Cronin, UCLA
Sometimes the right hire isn’t the sexy one.
Mick Cronin didn’t win big headlines or dominate the press conference when he was hired at UCLA, but that’s the last time Cronin has lost anything since arriving in Westwood.
A defensive savant whose matchup zone and tricky pick-and-roll coverages brought a defense-first toughness to UCLA that’s been lacking for decades, Cronin’s willingness to modernize, but maintain, his principles offensively is paying dividends. His scheme uses spacing and staggered screens to attack the rim with reckless abandon and lead the nation in 2-pointers made, with excellent efficiency in the process, that has helped give his Bruins team the “complete” feel his Cincinnati teams sometimes seemed to lack. Three of the most efficient offenses of his coaching career have come at UCLA, all while the defense has stayed elite.
As a result, Cronin has a Final Four and 2 Sweet 16s at UCLA and this team, despite a rash of injuries that would have crushed other programs, just keeps winning.
5. Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Like Sean Miller, Sampson is in a career renaissance after the NCAA delivered him a black eye. Violations committed by Sampson and his staff at Indiana set the Hoosiers program back a decade when the NCAA finished, and Sampson eventually landed at Houston, where he was tasked with rebuilding a once-proud program that went to 5 Final Fours between 1967 and 1984.
All Sampson has done is win, collecting 3 conference titles and advancing to Houston’s 6th Final Four in 2021. Sampson’s teams are methodical and efficient, ranking in the top 20 of offensive and defensive efficiency in each of the past 3 seasons while playing at a tempo in the bottom 10 percent of the country. It might not be beautiful on the eyes, but it sure does work. If Sampson’s Cougars cut down the nets in their hometown of Houston in 2 weeks, it will be the school’s first national title, and the end of a long redemption arc for Sampson.
4. Eric Musselman, Arkansas
Musselman wasn’t the best NBA head coach, but he’s quickly become one of the best at the collegiate level. A master roster builder who understood the transfer portal before it became the lifeblood of roster building, Musselman has attained wild success in Fayetteville, to the delight of some of the best fans in college basketball. Starved for a winner after years of good but not great under Mike Anderson, Musselman has now advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 3rd consecutive season, and can reach a 3rd consecutive Elite 8 with a win over UConn.
In 8 seasons as a head coach in college, he’s reached 7 postseasons (the only year he missed the postseason it was canceled), 6 NCAA Tournaments, and 4 second weekends (2 Sweet 16s, 2 Elite 8s). Is he a madman who rips his shirt off after big wins, lets F-bombs fly within microphone shot, and lives on the edge of rules compliance (without breaking rules!) in the transfer portal? Yes.
HAPPY FLIGHT #MARCH pic.twitter.com/Yc1BmgryhK
— Eric Musselman (@EricPMusselman) March 19, 2023
But his players love him and he genuinely cares about his kids, who leave it all on the floor for him as a result.
3, Jim Larrañaga, Miami
Jim Larrañaga has won about everything you can win. He’s also done it at places it typically isn’t done.
Remember, before 15 seeds rolled to the Sweet 16 in 3 consecutive seasons, there was Larrañaga’s George Mason team reinventing what Cinderella meant, advancing to the Final Four as an 11 seed in 2006 and knocking off 3 blue-bloods on the journey: Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn. George Mason couldn’t beat eventual NCAA champion Florida, but it was Larrañaga’s innovative, 4-out offense that confounded opponents throughout the tournament run and captured America’s imagination. Larrañaga turned down job offers that followed, staying 4 more years at George Mason, and advancing to 2 more NCAA Tournaments, before he took the Miami job in his adopted hometown in 2010.
Larrañaga has won 250 games since taking that gig — more than any coach in program history. He also has captured 2 ACC regular-season crowns, including this season, and one ACC Championship. He’s won the Naismith Coach of the Year award, in 2013, and 2 ACC coach of the year honors, in 2013 and 2016. He’s coached an ACC Player of the Year, Isaiah Wong, along with multiple All-Americans in Coral Gables.
ISAIAH WONG HEAT CHECK pic.twitter.com/LyZpEdm1jO
— Buhownz (@Demar305) March 20, 2023
All the while Larrañaga has stayed true to a formula he created at George Mason: innovative offense, guards with astounding shot-making ability, and teams full of upperclassmen who committed to the school and, even in the transfer portal era, elected to stay.
It’s difficult to win 700+ games in any sport. It’s even harder to do it almost exclusively at schools without much tradition before you arrived. But that’s what Larrañaga has accomplished in Coral Gables and, this season, he has the Hurricanes in the Sweet 16 for the 2nd straight season and the 4th time in his tenure at Miami. This team? It’s his best yet and could very well reach the program’s first Final Four.
2. Mark Few, Gonzaga
The attention paid to what Mark Few hasn’t yet done — win a national championship — too often obscures what he has done — lead a small program out of the mid-major wilderness and build it into a national powerhouse. The 22 WCC championships he has won in 23 years at Gonzaga are often shrugged off as expected accomplishments in a weak league, but the truth is Gonzaga’s success has lifted all boats in the WCC, which is now annually a 2-bid league and contends for as many as 4 bids thanks to the investments of other programs that grew tired of chasing Gonzaga (they are still chasing the Zags anyway). Few has also advanced to 12 — yes, 12 — Sweet 16s, 2 Final Fours, and a national championship game.
Touch Drive Duck In
A classic Mark Few set to seal a lane to the rim. pic.twitter.com/8nJ5J7zTvx
— Eric Fawcett (@EricFawcett_) March 18, 2023
In the process, Few has run some of the nation’s most innovative offense, coached legendary NCAA players like Adam Morrison, Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert and Drew Timme, and won 30 games in 7 seasons. Gonzaga and Few enter the Sweet 16 with the nation’s 2nd-longest winning streak (17), and national championship No. 1, the Holy Grail for Few and Gonzaga, is within reach.
1. Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Death, taxes, Izzo.
That’s the deal for Mr. March, who will coach in his 15th Sweet 16 this week.
Doing that with this Michigan State team, which was 14-9 and very much on the edge of the bubble in early February, is a sign that Izzo, now 68, still has it as a big-time coach.
The passion of Tom Izzo can never be questioned.
The enthusiastic bump with Mady Sissoko is a perfect moment. pic.twitter.com/lcEzPyUH6N
— Ben Stevens (@BenScottStevens) March 19, 2023
Forever one of the sport’s most passionate coaches, Izzo is a magnificent teacher of fundamentals. His Michigan State teams play old school, high-low, inside-out offense, but it works because they are unselfish, make the extra pass, and constantly have shooters Izzo recruits to complement his usual city point guard (AJ Hoggard, this season) and rough and tumble bigs (Mady Sissoko). Izzo doesn’t get out-schemed, his teams constantly neutralize what you do best, and in a wide open East Region, the Spartans can absolutely reach the Final Four.